Transcendental Invitations (Chapter 2)

The Hare Krishna Explosion
by Hayagriva das

Part I: New York, 1966
Chapter 2

Transcendental Invitations

The next morning, when I go alone to see the Swami, he seems to be expecting me. Directly and simply, he begins to explain that he needs help in spreading Krishna consciousness around the world. Noticing that he has been typing, I offer to type for him, and he hands me the manuscript of the First Chapter, Second Canto, of Vyasadeva’s Srimad-Bhagavatam.

“You can type this?”

“Oh yes,” I say.

He is delighted. We roll a small typewriter table out of the corner, and I begin work. His manuscript is single spaced without margins on flimsy, yellowing Indian paper. It appears that the Swami tried to squeeze every word possible onto the pages. I have to use a ruler to keep from losing my place.

The first words read: “O the king.” I naturally wonder whether “O” is the king’s name, and “the king” stands in apposition. After concluding that “O King” is intended instead, I consult the Swami.

“Yes,” he says. “Change it, then.”

As I retype another paragraph, I notice certain grammatical discrepancies, perhaps typical of Bengalis who learned English from British headmasters in the early 1900s. Considerable editing is required to get the text to conform with current American usage. After pointing out a few changes, I tell the Swami that if he so desired, I could make all the proper corrections.

“Very good,” he says, smiling. “Do it! Put it nicely.”

Thus my editorial services begin.

I type all morning in the room where he reads, translates, welcomes visitors, and “takes rest.” There is a tin footlocker, used as a desk, and a rug on which he sits and sometimes sleeps. Apart from my typewriter table, there is no other furniture. As I type, I hear him cooking in the kitchen, and can smell the butter being boiled to make ghee. I finish the chapter: twenty pages, double spaced with wide margins. The original had filled only eight pages.

“Let me know if there’s any more work,” I tell him. “I can take it back to Mott Street and type there.”

“More? Yes,” he says. “There is lots more.”

He opens the closet door and pulls out two large bundles tied with saffron cloth. Within, he shows me thousands of pages of single spaced, marginless manuscripts of literatures unknown in the Western world. I stand before them, astounded.

“It’s a lifetime of typing,” I protest.

“Oh, yes!” he smiles happily. “Many lifetimes.”

It is a typically muggy, hot July day. Smog hangs over the streets like a poisonous veil, obscuring the tops of skyscrapers. The printer delivers five thousand small handbills to the Matchless Gifts storefront. They read:

Practice the transcendental sound vibration, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare HareHare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. This chanting will cleanse the dust from the mirror of the mind.

Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta
International Society for Krishna Consciousness
26 Second Avenue

Meetings at 7 A.M. daily
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 7:00 P.M.
You are cordially invited to come and bring your friends.
“They’re finally here, Swamiji , I announce, using, like everyone now, the more respectful form of address.

“Very good! Now just distribute,” he says.

I take about three hundred.

“You think they’re all right?” he asks.

“They’re fine,” I say. “People will be curious to learn more.”

“We’ll call our Society ‘Iskcon,’” he says, smiling.

“What’s that?”

“I-S-K-C-O-N,” he says, spelling the letters out. “Iskcon—International Society for Krishna Consciousness.”

He laughs. His newly coined acronym amuses him. ISKCON. He is having fun.

Taking the handbills to Washington Square, I distribute them to N.Y.U. students and Greenwich Village hipsters. I chant Hare Krishna softly, happily, feeling like an emissary from another world.

Though we’re not accustomed to getting up early, Swamiji’s magnetism draws us out onto the nearly deserted 6:30 a.m. streets. I walk briskly from Mott Street to Second Avenue. Surprisingly, Houston Street and Bowery are no longer gray and drab. In the early morning, before the smog accumulates, the fresh sky is streaked gold and red, and even the buildings seem to sparkle. Looking down Second Avenue, I can see the parapets of Brooklyn Bridge shine over the East River. I chant all the way to the foyer of the front building, then push the buzzer marked “A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.” The door buzzes open, and I walk through the hallway and small courtyard to the rear apartment building, then tiptoe up the stairs to avoid waking the neighbors.

These early morning meetings are beautiful and intimate. On any one morning, there are only eight or ten of us present—all young, all in our twenties, except thirty-year-old Jim Greene, a carpentry teacher at Cooper Union. There is Mike Grant, a pianist-composer just graduated from Columbia; Steve Guarino, a city social worker; Charles Barnett, fresh out of high school and into hatha-yoga; bearded Roy Dubois, a freelance cartoonist and writer; Bill Epstein, a waiter at the macrobiotic Paradox restaurant; tall, skinny Stanley—no one knows anything about Stanley; and the Mott Street crew—Keith, Wally, myself. We all sit cross-legged on the floor in front of Swamiji, who sits behind the tin footlocker. He looks fresh from being awake for hours.

“Softly,” he says, barely touching together the bell-metal cymbals. Ching ching ching. One, two, three. One, two, three. We clap timidly, following the rhythm of the cymbals.

“Samsara davanala lidha loka.” Eyes closed, he chants slowly in a soft, wavering baritone, while the rays of early sunlight stream through the windows. “Tranaya karunya-ghanaghanatvarn praptasya kalyana-gunarnavasya, vande guroh sri-caranaravindam.”

“The spiritual master is receiving benediction from the ocean of mercy. Just as a cloud pours water on a forest fire to extinguish it, the spiritual master delivers the materially afflicted world by extinguishing the blazing fire of material existence. I offer my respectful obeisances unto his lotus feet.”
Swamiji first invokes the mercy of his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, founder of India’s Gaudiya Math. It was he who told Swamiji to preach Krishna consciousness in the West. Bhaktisiddhanta, our spiritual grandfather, another “Vaikuntha man,” left the world of mortals in 1936.

Entranced, we listen to Swamaji chant. His presence dominates the small room. Absorbed in chanting, he closes his eyes. His head is golden, shiny, radiant. As he chants, he looks like a happy child calling to his Maker.

“Mahaprabhoh kirtana-nrtya-gita…

“Chanting the holy name, dancing in ecstasy, singing, and playing musical instruments, the spiritual master is always gladdened by the sankirtan movement of Lord Chaitanya. Because he is relishing pure devotion, his hair sometimes stands on end, his body quivers, and tears flow from his eyes in torrents. I offer my humble obeisances unto his lotus feet…
Swamiji then sings prayers to Lord Chaitanya and His disciples: “Jaya sri-krishna-chaitanya prabhu nityananda sri-adwaita gadadhar srivasadi-gaura-bhakta-vrinda.” Lord Chaitanya, we learn, is an incarnation who spread the chanting of Hare Krishna throughout India in the fifteenth century. After these invocations, Swamiji chants Hare Krishna, and we respond.

“Softly,” he reminds us. “The neighbors complain.”

We chant for half an hour, but who knows the time? It seems that we are eternally before Swamiji praising the all-attractive Supreme Person, Krishna.

The chanting ends. Swamiji hands Roy the Radhakrishnan translation of Bhagavad-gita, and Roy reads the Sanskrit transliteration and English translation of a Second Chapter verse. After correcting Roy’s Sanskrit mispronunciations, Swamiji criticizes the translator’s commentaries, condemning them as “impersonalist.” Then he begins his own explanation of the text. Since there are so few of us, we can freely ask questions whenever we don’t understand a point.

We seldom find this necessary. Swamiji elucidates each verse by drawing on infinite analogies and relating the real meaning to something familiar. Meticulously, he clarifies what has been considered mystic and occult.

“‘Mystic’ means misty,” he says. “Our concept of Krishna is not misty. It is very clear. Krishna delivers Bhagavad-gita and says, ‘This is the way I am.’ Now we must understand properly, as Arjuna understood.”

So in the early morning, as the trucks begin rolling down Houston Street, and the iron Jalousies of Second Avenue come crashing up, Swamiji introduces us to Krishna.

Who knows what Swamiji is really saying? More often, Shankara makes better sense to me: The Self, the intangible, impersonal atma within everyone, is supreme. That is certainly more logical than saying that a cowherd boy named Krishna is supreme. A blue boy at that.

“Why is Krishna blue?” I ask Swamiji.

“Ask Him,” he says.

“Who’s going to believe this without actually seeing?”

“We do not concoct some artificial God,” he says. “We simply accept Krishna as He says He is, and as all the bona fide acharyas and sadhus say He is. Govindam adi purusam tam aham bhajami.”

“But don’t other people experience Him differently?” I ask. “And describe Him differently?”

“Yes, and we accept as bona fide all religions founded by God. Only God can establish a religion. We accept Christian, Moslem, and Buddhist faiths, but we reject all mental concoctions of so-called philosophers and mundane poets.”

“But most Western theologians and philosophers would say that God, in the form of a blue cowherd boy, is imaginary,” I say.

“Yes, and some Mayavadis, impersonalist jnanis, also say like that. Because worshipping the impersonal is very difficult, they try to imagine some form of God. Of course, the devotees do not imagine Krishna; they see the actual form of the Supreme Lord. But the impersonalists try to imagine some form. This is very foolish. You cannot imagine the form of God. God is so great. You may imagine something, but that something is not the form of God. It is concoction. Such speculators are called iconographers. There are two classes of rascals: iconoclasts and iconographers. Those who imagine the form of God are iconographers. And those who think, ‘I have killed God,’ are iconoclasts.

Just like in India, during British days, there were Hindu-Moslem riots, and the Hindus would go to the Moslem mosques and break everything, thinking, ‘We have broken their God,’ and the Moslems would go to the Hindu temples and break the idol, thinking, ‘We have killed the Hindu God.’ This is foolishness. Also, during Gandhi’s noncooperation movement, people rioted and broke anything belonging to the government, especially the post boxes on the street. They thought that by breaking them, they were destroying the post office, or the government. This is the foolishness of the iconoclasts. But those who have a true conception of God do not quarrel with each other. All through history there is some religious fight: Hindu against Moslem, Christian against non-Christian. God is God. He has no material qualification. The iconographers imagine, ‘God is like this or that,’ but the man in knowledge knows that God is one, and transcendental.“

“What about Western philosophy?” I ask. “Are you saying that it’s all speculative?”

“Philosophy without religion is mental speculation,” he says, “and religion without philosophy is sentimentalism.”


“Mental speculation.”

“And Plato?”

“Socrates was Brahman realized,” he says. “He was a great philosopher who was firmly convinced of the immortality of the soul. When he was condemned to death and asked to drink hemlock poison, he did not lament because he knew that he would not be destroyed with his body. When they asked him, ‘Well, Socrates, how do you want to be buried?’ he replied, ‘First of all, you catch me. Then you put me in the grave.”‘ Swamiji laughs heartily, shaking all over. “‘Just catch me first,’ he was telling them. He knew that they were just dealing with his body, and he was out of the bodily conception. Those who are conversant with Krishna consciousness know very well, ‘I am not this body. I am part and parcel of Krishna.’”

“Socrates also spoke of God with form,“ I say. “He said that his teacher Diotima tried to turn him from the imperfect beauty of earthly forms to contemplation of the ideal form of beauty.”

“Yes, that is philosophy!” Swamiji says. “Now our eyes are engaged in seeing worldly beauty. But we have to retract our eyes from enjoying that beauty and instead see the beauty inside. Similarly, with the ears and other senses: we have to hear the omkara, the sound of God’s names, from within. All the senses must be withdrawn from external activities and concentrated on the form of Krishna within the heart. This is the perfection of yoga and philosophy. Of course, the mind is very restless and agitated, so this is most difficult.”

“What about Ramakrishna?” I ask. “Was he a devotee?”

“No. He was some mad monk.”

“Really?” I had always thought Ramakrishna was one of India’s favorite saints. “And Vivekananda?”

“A rascal womanizer. He said God was daridra-Narayana, the poor man in the street. So the Ramakrishna Mission is opening hospitals and preaching humanitarianism. They will tell you that God is in the street starving. What nonsense! Lord Brahma says, ‘Cintamani-prakara-sadmasu kalpa-vrksa.’ Krishna is tending the cows, in abodes built with spiritual gems, and He is surrounded by millions of purpose trees and is being served by hundreds of thousands of goddesses of fortune. So He is not a poor man. But Ramakrishna was a poor man. He had so much sex that he became impotent and then worshipped all women as his mother, and even called some prostitute the Holy Mother. What a rascal! Then Vivekananda called him God. But God is not such a cheap thing. We must first understand what God is. He is Bhagavan, the possessor of all opulence. We must learn of Bhagavan from Bhagavan Himself. Any man who says he’s God is the opposite—dog.”

Agreeing or not, I sit and listen. Gradually, as I become attracted to listening, agreement loses its importance. He is so sure of one thing: Krishna is God. I have never before seen anyone so absolutely certain beyond doubt. And his certainty is contagious. It becomes the basis of our faith.

“I want to chant in one of the parks nearby,” Swamiji suddenly tells us one morning. “I leave it to you to decide where.”

Chanting publicly? We all sit in surprised silence. Evangelical Krishnaism? What will people think? Since Swamiji is eager to go, we finally agree. After conferring, we decide that Washington Square is best. Sundays are always packed.

The next Sunday afternoon, we follow Swamiji down Third Street to Washington Square. New Yorkers even slow down their cars to watch ten young men follow an Indian holyman who chants on beads and wears saffron robes. Self-conscious, knowing that we are making public spectacles of ourselves, we keep our eyes riveted on Swamiji, who somehow floats through it all, the swan on water, apparently unaware of the stares and comments.

“Hey, look! That old man forgot to change his pajamas!”

A gang of Italian toughs. Oblivious to their ridicule, Swamiji ambles along unruffled, indeed ecstatic to be leading a following into the street.

Just what is he doing? I wonder. Does he think he can convert all Manhattan to Hare Krishna chanting? What must people think?

We follow him through the Sunday crowds—Puerto Rican kids playing, Negro couples strolling, long-haired boys tossing frisbees, old Polish couples sitting on benches, Good Humor men vending ice cream, Italians tinkering with motorcycles, lovers kissing, and teenagers pounding bongo drums. Predictably, eyes turn our way.

Adjusting his robes and sliding off his white, pointed shoes, Swamiji sits comfortably and solidly on the grass near the teenagers, next to a “Keep Off The Grass” sign. We also sit down, fearing that we are surely committing some misdemeanor. Then he begins striking the bell-metal cymbals. Ching ching ching, ching ching ching.

“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare,” he chants.

We respond. One of the teenagers lends us his bongo drum, and we manage to follow Swamiji’s rhythm. A small crowd gathers. Minutes, eternities pass. A sailor grinds his cigaret on the ground. “What the hell is this?” he huffs.

Within minutes, two burly policemen push through the crowd.

“Okay, who’s in charge here?” one asks.

We can indicate only Swamiji.

“Don’t you see the sign?” the cop shouts.

Swamiji looks at “Keep Off The Grass.” He smiles charmingly at the police and humbly walks down onto the asphalt. We ask if he wants someone to run back to Second Avenue for a rug, but he says, No,” and once again sits down firmly, this time on the hot asphalt. We sit in a circle around him.

As more people gather, the crowd presses around us. Swamiji leads the chant for some thirty minutes, but for us, time stands still under the Washington Arch. Resplendent in his saffron robes, Swamiji initiates the first public chanting of Hare Krishna in America. We are the only ones to respond. Everyone else just gawks.

When the chant ends, Swamiji turns to Roy. The people await some explanation.

“Srimad-Bhagavatam,” Swamijji says. Roy hands him the first volume. Swamiji turns to the preface, then hands me the book.

“Read,” he says.

I stand and begin reading the entire preface aloud. Surprisingly enough, people listen.

Disparity in human society is due to a godless civilization. There is God, or the Almighty One from whom everything emanates, by whom everything is manifested, and in whom everything is merged to rest. Material science is trying to find the ultimate source of creation very insufficiently, but it is a fact that there is one ultimate source of everything that be. This ultimate source is explained rationally and authoritatively in the beautiful Srimad-Bhagavatam.
As I read, I hardly recognize my voice, for some larger voice seems to speak through me. Despite our timid, self-conscious beginning, we feel strangely exhilarated by our first public kirtan. Swamiji was right. When chanted publicly, the mantra is more potent.
Back on Second Avenue, Roy asks Swamiji if he is pleased with our first public appearance.

“It was very nice,” he says gratefully. “Now you may go out in the afternoons and chant in the streets and parks. Lord Chaitanya has specifically recommended this sankirtan movement, chanting in public, for this age of Kali. There is no other way. Harer nama harer nama harer namaiva kevalam. Kalau nasty eva nasty eva nasty eva gatir anyatha. Three times for emphasis. There is no other way, no other way, no other way to salvation in Kali-yuga.”

Agreeing or disagreeing, we continue chanting. As our self-consciousness slowly wanes, we return to the streets. I pound a bass drum, toot a cornet. Roy plays a bongo. Steve and Keith clash cymbals. We walk around the Lower East Side, visit the Village, then circle down through Chinatown to alarm the Buddhists.

We are eating prasadam with Swamiji every day. Prasadam means mercy.” Swamiji explains that we must first prepare food nicely, then offer it to Krishna. Just by glancing at it, Krishna eats it, then leaves everything for us out of mercy. Then, we are permitted to eat.

Swamiji teaches Keith to cook, and later Charles assists.

“When I was on the boat, I was wondering whether the American boys and girls would like prasadam,” Swamiji laughs.

We all laugh with him, as we enjoy the prasadam immensely.

When I ask Swamiji about his boat journey to America, he tells us that he had gotten seasick in the beginning. Because he couldn’t eat food prepared by nondevotees, nor unoffered food, he was allowed to cook in his own cabin. Keith and I are astonished to learn that Swamiji came over on the Jaladhuta of the Scindia Line, the same boat we had taken to India. Shortly after Swamiji had gotten off the boat, we had boarded.

It was all Krishna’s arrangement,” Swamiji laughs. “You do not have to search out guru. When Krishna sees that you are sincere, He sends guru to you.”

Prasadam quickly becomes a popular, transcendental affair. Swamiji puts all the food on one plate—mung bean soup (dal), white rice, cooked vegetables, and chapatis, the bread of India, a kind of wheat tortilla.

In Swamiji’s back apartment, we roll up the Oriental rug and sit on the wood floor next to the walls. When offering the food to pictures of Lord Krishna and Lord Chaitanya and His disciples, Swamiji rings a little bell and recites prayers.

We all sit and wait. We have expanded to a dozen now. Mike’s wife Jan, the only woman, does not attend the noon prasadam in the back apartment.

Swamiji squats and walks on his haunches, distributing prasadam from the big offering plate, which he pushes before him. As he picks up the rice and vegetables with his right hand and puts some on each paper plate, we repeat, after him, a prayer in Bengali and then English:

This material body is a lump of ignorance, and the senses are networks of paths to death. We have fallen into the ocean of material sense enjoyment. Of all the senses, the tongue is the most voracious and uncontrollable. It is very difficult to conquer the tongue in this world, but Krishna is very kind to us. He has sent us very nice prasadam to conquer the tongue. Now let us take that prasadam to our full satisfaction, and glorify Their Lordships Radha and Krishna, and in love call for Lord Chaitanya and Lord Nityananda to help us.
At first we take only one chapati each.

“Take more,” Swamiji insists.

“Oh no. That’s enough.”

“Achha! Just one more.”

He plops the chapatis on our plates. Stanley, tall and skinny, finally eats ten. Swamiji keeps piling them before him. Our appetites pick up as Swamiji prods us to take more and more. I recall that in India I had also eaten rice, dal, chapatis and cooked vegetables, but it wasn’t prasadam. Prasadam is more succulent because Swamiji’s fingers have touched it. And, as Swamiji says, Krishna has glanced upon it.

When more people begin attending at noon and it becomes impractical for everyone to eat in Swamiji’s apartment, prasadam is taken from the kitchen down to the temple for distribution. Swamiji, however, continues eating in his room. Keith and Charles cook, and stacks of hot chapatis are rushed downstairs for disciples and guests.

“I have many preparations to teach you,” Swamiji tells Keith and Charles. “But first you must learn these basics nicely.”

svadv-anna-trptan hari-bhakta-sanghan
krtvaiva trptim bhajatah sadaiva
vande guroh sri-charanaravindam
The spiritual master is always offering four kinds of food to Krishna, and when he sees that the devotees are eating bhagavat-prasadam, he is satisfied. I offer my respectful obeisances unto his lotus feet.…
“Our method is not dry,” Swamiji says as he hands chapatis to each disciple. “It is full of juice, full of nectar.”

And he teaches Keith how to make “sweet balls” (gulabjamuns), dripping with clarified butter and sugar syrup. Swamiji calls them “ISKCON bullets,” our “ammunition against maya.” We sit before a large jar and spear the sweetballs that float to the top.

Slowly we become aware that Swamiji’s knowledge of recipes is as vast as his knowledge of the Vedas. “There are so many preparations,” he says, “and one by one I will teach them to you. But first you must learn to be very, very clean. And never taste food while cooking. If you taste, everything is spoiled. Whatever we offer to Krishna must be pure. You must learn this. That is a qualification of a brahmin—cleanliness.”

Since Allen Ginsberg is reportedly chanting Hare Krishna at peace marches and poetry readings, we mail him one of Swamiji’s transcendental invitations: “You Are Cordially Invited To Come And Bring Your Friends.”

Allen drives up in a Volkswagen microbus with friend Peter Orlovsky. Allen’s full beard has no tinge of gray, but his hair is receding. He is forty-two and at the peak of his fame as poet laureate of the counterculture. Somewhat self-consciously, he brings a beautiful new harmonium from Calcutta. “It’s for the kirtans,” he says. “It’s a little donation.”

As usual, Swamiji comes down at seven and leads kirtan. Allen joins, pumping a slow, wavering drone on the harmonium. After the lecture, he steps forward and offers obeisances by touching Swamiji’s feet, a gesture customary in India. When Allen is introduced, Swamiji invites him to take prasadam with us in the morning. Then Swamiji retires to his room.

“What time should I come by?” Allen asks.

“About eleven,” I suggest. “You can talk with Swamiji before prasadam.”

Allen hesitates, then frowns. Something appears to be disturbing him, something difficult to pinpoint.

“Don’t you think Swamiji’s a little too… well, esoteric for New York?”

I stop and wonder. I’ve never thought of Swamiji as esoteric, although he draws heavily from Vedic authority. Allen, however, has been a celebrated anti-authoritarian since his 1955 “Howl” poem.

“We’ve got a problem,” I say, changing the subject. “Swamiji’s visa is running out, and we need an immigration lawyer.”

“We’ll help with that,” Allen says. “In the morning I’ll bring a check for two hundred, initially.“ He and Peter then leave. Although the money is badly needed, I was only going to ask him to recommend a lawyer.

When Allen arrives in the morning, he brings a portable harmonium he acquired in Benares. Sitting before Swamiji in the back apartment, he chants Hare Krishna to a hurdy-gurdy rhythm. The melody is very jolly, and Allen’s head wags back and forth as he pumps the harmonium, using only a drone and letting his voice carry the tune. His chanting is very different from Swamiji’s. I almost expect to see a monkey with a cup appear.

Swamiji is most cordial. He smiles and begins to explain the philosophy of Lord Chaitanya. “He even led a sankirtan protest through the streets,” Swamiji says, “and inaugurated civil dlisobedience in India. When the government officers broke the sankirtan drums, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu personally led thousands of people to the Chan Kazi’s palace. So, you are a very influential man. I request that you chant this Hare Krishna at your poetry readings and other public functions.”

Quoting Bhagavad-gita, Swamiji tells Allen that the common populace follows the actions of a great man and tends to imitate him. “What the great do, others follow,” Swamiji says. “So this is a great opportunity for you to introduce this Krishna consciousness. Hare Krishna can purify everyone. Whenever the lion roars in the jungle, even the elephants run away. This vibration of transcendental sound, Hare Krishna, is like the roaring of a lion. It will chase away all the elephants of dirty things, all that huge garbage, the dirtiness that has accumulated in our mind after many, many births.”

Allen listens attentively. Although receptive, he seems to resist conversion. While not committing himself fully, he promises to chant more and give up smoking.

“But do you really intend to make these American boys into Vaishnavas?” he asks before leaving.

“Yes,” Swamiji smiles brightly. “And I will make them all brahmins.”


Allen appears struck with wonder that anyone would venture to transform us into brahmins.

“Well, good luck, Swamiji,” he bids, giving the check to help with the visa.

Pasted with permission

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